It’s a cliche to call North Korea the most isolated country in the world. Those of us living outside the country often have very little idea of what life there is like, often only seeing what its government would like us to see: military parades, missile launches, and joyous crowds.
Choi Eunyong’s best-selling Shoko’s Smile has earned her comparisons to novelists such as Sally Rooney and Marilynne Robinson for the collection’s carefully crafted portraits of women’s relationships and intimacies formed and dissolved over time.
In Angela Mi Young Hur’s new novel, Folklorn, she writes about a “Korean American Cali-Gothic” family that tackles family trauma going back to the Korean War. The story is a Korean-American immigrant struggle story, yes, but more than that most of it atypically takes place in Sweden, where Hur lives with her Swedish physicist husband and their two children. Hur also dips liberally into Korean folktales, elements of which make regular appearances in the story.
Jeremy Holt is a Korean adoptee and one of three identical triplets. In Made in Korea, Holt’s new comic series along with illustrator George Schall, the concept of identity has new meaning as artificial intelligence abounds and some children are no longer made of flesh and bone.
South Korea’s Jeju Island has in recent years become almost as popular a backdrop for novels as tourism photos. This is in part due to its evocative female divers and the role the islands played during Japanese occupation, WW2 and the aftermath, in particular the girls who were abducted and sent far away to become so-called “comfort girls” for Japanese soldiers. June Hur’s new young adult novel, The Forest of Stolen Girls, is also set on Jeju and involves abducted girls, except the story takes place some five hundred years earlier in 1426.
One image that, rightly or wrongly, can come to mind when discussing North Korea is Kim Jong Un clapping and laughing at a nuclear missile test while his people suffer. The young dictator cuts and eccentric figure: an obese thirty-something with a zero fade haircut in a baggy Zhongshan suit. His friendship with NBA star Dennis Rodman and handshake with Donald Trump have sealed his cult figure status among Western audiences. But Benjamin R Young’s Guns, Guerillas and the Great Leader reminds us of a time when North Korea involved itself more constructively on the world stage promoting its anti-imperialist ideology in the Third World.
Ann Shin, Canadian of Korean extraction, is perhaps best known as a filmmaker. My Enemy, My Brother, about two Iraqis on opposite sides of the conflict, was shortlisted for a 2016 Academy Award. Another was the well-received The Defector: Escape from North Korea. Shin has now turned her hand to fiction. Her debut novel The Last Exiles is, goes the blurb, “inspired by real stories”.